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Folk Artist Peter Hunt

    Peter Hunt was a talented folk artist, a self-made celebrity and a relentless entrepreneur who made a name for himself with his peasant decorations from the 1930s through the 1960s. A friend of the wealthy, the artistic and the odd-ball, Peter Hunt and his Peasant Village was a well-known fixture
on Cape Cod, where summer visitors could run into one of his easily recognizable friends, including high-powered executives like James Keating of Chicago, the savvy cosmetics queen Helena Rubenstein, the scandal-stirring opera singer Ganna Walska and, of course, the now-famous Provincetown artists John Whorf, Bruce McKain and Frederick Waugh.
    Hunt had a habit of embellishing, not just in furniture decoration, but in stories about his beginnings. A longstanding Cape Cod legend (that Hunt originated and promoted) held that he first arrived in Provincetown in the early 1920s when the yacht Hunt shared with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald was forced to take safe harbor in the face of a storm. Wearing a sweeping black cape and a black broad-rimmed hat, holding the leashes of his playful afghan hounds while a red-headed dwarf scurried behind, Hunt said he strolled the streets of the village and declared, “This is a wonderful place. I must stay here.”
    No matter how dramatic (or ordinary) his arrival, Hunt did stay in Provincetown, bringing his parents, Ma and Pa Hunt, and establishing himself as a folk artist and furniture director at his collection of shops called Peasant Village. On what he christened Peter Hunt Lane, an alley that spilled onto Commercial Street, he employed talented young people to decorate the stools, tables, dressers, trays and other household goods in his trademark peasant style that became so popular in the 1930s and ‘40s. Among his apprentices are now well-known modern impressionists Nancy Whorf Kelly and Carol Whorf Wescott.
    Hunt’s work was originally “discovered” by the well-to-do summer people on Cape Cod, who found his colorful peasant decorations the perfect accents for their cottages and retreats. They also found Hunt to be charming, witty and a great addition to cocktail parties and dinners, and his mailbox was filled with invitations from the upper crust of Boston and New York.
    Soon the buyers from upscale department stores, including Bloomingdale’s, Gimbel’s and Macy’s, got wind of society’s latest fascination in home decoration, and they clambered for Hunt to decorate more and more furnishings and knick-knacks for their stores, often featuring him in special promotions touted with full-page ads in the New York and Boston newspapers.
    When the United States began fighting in World War II, Hunt brought a new angle to his work: he could show anyone how to “transform old furniture into new” (with a sponsoring line of paints from Du Pont, of course), so people could continue to conserve and recycle as the wartime government had enjoined. His booklets for Du Pont Nemours, How to Transform Old Furniture into New in 1943 and Transformagic in 1945 were immensely popular, especially after Life, House Beautiful, and Mademoiselle magazines published feature stories and photo spreads about Hunt and his furniture decorating techniques.
     As his success grew, Peter Hunt used his influence to bring along other artists. He discovered the works of American primitive artist George Edwin Lothrop piled in a corner of a Boston thrift shop, and worked to revive interest in the almost-forgotten "Poet King." When Jack Amoroso was a fledgling artist looking for work as a Peasant Village apprentice, Peter Hunt took one look at Amoroso's paintings and immediately set up the young man in his own shop on Peter Hunt Lane. Today, Amoroso is a well-know Modern expressionist artist in Coconut Grove, Fla.
After the war, when trade with Europe re-opened and new styles in home furnishings could be imported, Hunt’s wealthy clients began looking abroad for interior designs. Taking advantage of the resurgence in industry and trade, Hunt began creating designs for mass market sales, and his peasant images and embellishments could be found on Meyercord decals, Rideau pottery, and Jerywil woodcrafts. Despite his efforts, the public’s interest in his peasant designs began to wane.
    Hunt decided to sell Peasant Village’s properties in 1959, saying “When a customer complains about the price of a $2.50 Christmas ornament, well, then I know there’s no more money in Provincetown.” He opened Peacock Alley in Orleans on Cape Cod the following year.
At Peacock Alley, Hunt invited other artists to open shops in the rambling house, including glass artisan Bill Sydenstricker. Hunt opened his own eclectic shop, selling a combination of antiques and his peasant decorated furnishings, with his former apprentice Nancy Whorf Kelly, now grown, decorating a number of pieces on consignment that Hunt would sign and sell.
    Those last years were devoted to exploring new forms of art and crafts. Hunt experimented, with some success, with decoupage and his own version of psychedelic art in an effort to attract a new audience.
    One night, in April 1967, Peter Hunt went to bed, fell asleep and never woke up. A coroner later declared the cause of death as a heart attack. A reporter attending Hunt’s funeral said of the varied people in the crowded chapel “there was at least one millionaire and one beach comber.”
The following year, Hunt’s estate was auctioned off, with the artworks and goods left from both the Peacock Alley shop and his home, garnering only $40,000.
    For many years, Hunt’s pieces drifted from public notice, many forgotten in attics or sold at tag sales. But, in the past 10 years, as interest in restoration has strengthened along with a fascination with folk art and antiques, Hunt pieces are finding a new audience.
    Now, in Cape Cod and New England homes Hunt pieces again take center stage as interiors and exteriors are decorated to reflect homes of days gone by. Across the country, Hunt’s peasant designs command superlative prices at antique shops, estate sales and online auctions.
    Peter Hunt is back – again.
    This web site is designed to celebrate Peter Hunt’s life and his art, and to provide a place for people to learn, share stories and ask questions about the folk artist.
If you have a Peter Hunt piece or want to ask something about his work, or if you have a story about him, we hope you’ll click on the Angel icon (below) to share it.
    As the weeks go by, we’ll update this site with your contributions and additional information and links to keep the spirit of Peter Hunt alive.

 

PICTURE CREDITS: A coffee table complete with illustrated tea service was decorated by Peter Hunt in the early 1950s (top), courtesy of private collector in Nantucket; the portrait of Peter Hunt by Provincetown artist Samuel Oppenheim (center left) is part of an exhibit at the Provincetown Heritage Museum - Pilgrim Monument Museum; an old postcard pictures Peter Hunt Lane back in the late 1940s, courtesy of the Provincetown Heritage Museum (center right); artist Richard Elloward created this painting of Peacock Alley in Orleans, now a collector's print.

 

Webmaster Lynn Van Dine has written articles about Peter Hunt for several national publications, including Yankee magazine, Cape Cod Life and JoSonja’s Artist’s Journal. After almost a decade of research, her book, The Search for Peter Hunt, is now available through the publisher, The Local History Company.

To order copies of "The Search for Peter Hunt," or for retail locations, visit publisher The Local History Company.

Copyright 2003 Lynn Van Dine